So What About the Homeless, Anyway?


Regular readers know that I am a subscriber to Salon, an online magazine. Salon runs an advice column called “Since You Asked …” The columnist, Cary Tennis, is definitely not the Ann Landers type. His advice is sometimes practical, but often veers off on tangents. I disagree with him maybe a third of the time, and another third I read it and end up scratching my head wondering how the heck his answer related to the question submitted. I found this question, and Cary’s response, interesting, and thought it was appropriate for this crowd and germane to Al’s post from Monday. (Note for new readers: you can read any of the content on Salon by watching a short ad and getting a “day pass”).

The letter writer wants to know whether he is doing a good thing by sitting and eating the breakfast he has prepared for the homeless at the soup kitchen with some of the people he has served instead of accompanying the rest of his church buddies to an expensive hotel for an expensive brunch. He writes eloquently about this dilemma, so I encourage you to read his letter in full, but the essential question is this: how can you live with the discomfort of knowing that other people suffer in such close proximity to you and do so little to help them? Does volunteering really do much, or is it hypocrisy? Short of becoming homeless yourself, what is there to do that is not uncomfortable for the conscience (other than, of course, ignoring the homeless entirely, which is the option most choose)?

A few weeks ago I picked my husband David up from work. On that particular day he had gotten delayed, so I sat in the car outside his office in the backseat feeding the baby while I was waiting for him. Across the street from his office there is a small square park where a number of homeless people “live.” During the hour I was sitting in the car, I saw a woman cross the street and go to the door of a small shop that was set in slightly from the sidewalk (the shop was closed). She pulled out a large purple cloak-type thing which she used to cover herself as she stood with her back to the street. I don’t know how on earth she did it, because she remained standing the entire time, but when she took off the cloak and came out from the shop door, she was holding a small tupperware container of urine, which she dumped into a bush.

I am definitely one of those who is guilty of ignoring the homeless. I justify it to myself that there are simply too many of them, that if I helped them all I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. But I know that my life is really comfortable, and that that does not mean that I deserve comfort. Intellectually, I know that there is not much other than good fortune that separates me from them. Why is it so hard to act on that belief? I do not know where to begin, and like most problems that seem insurmountable, it seems easier to do nothing.  Your thoughts?


32 Responses to “So What About the Homeless, Anyway?”

  1. alsturgeon Says:

    What an excellent exchange!!! I hope everyone will listen to you and read it in its entirety instead of depending solely on your (very good) summation.

    I’m too tired tonight to get into it too deep, but I will try tomorrow. I know my Shane Claiborne book (The Irresistible Revolution) has LOTS to say about this. You may have to endure quotes.

    And the “you may learn something from them” section is really, really important to discuss. There’s the self-centered way to read that, but there’s the humble way, too. I’m all up with the humble way.

    We haven’t really told many people (so I’ll go into greater detail later), but my wife and I are going to Haiti for a week in 2008, during which we’ll be living with a regular Haitian family for the very reason just discussed (to learn from them, not to teach them or give them things). So I’m really interested in this line of thinking. (Oh, and if anyone wants to go with us, please let me know – I’ll tell you all about it.)

    But I’m going to bed right now.

  2. Thursday Links « Out Here Hope Remains Says:

    […] On the Hippo blog there is a hearty discussion on Homelessness heating up. […]

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    I was too tired last night, and now I’m too busy…

    More later, but I’ll throw my first Shane Claiborne quote out there to get things started:

    “When people move beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of the late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara, ‘When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.’ Charity wins awards and applause, but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for charity. People are crucified for living out a love that disrupts the social order, that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.”

    C’mon peoples, whaddayathink?

    (BTW, I have to say that I never thought I’d see a beautiful description of Jesus that included the f-word, but Cary Tennis pulled off that tricky feat in his response that Msmiranda linked above.)

  4. mrspeacock Says:

    Wow. GREAT article.

    I think you’re right on the money in that since we don’t know what to do with the homeless, we mostly ignore them. The same goes for the poor, in general. We don’t know the best way to help, so we simply don’t. OR, because we’re selfish, we choose not to learn how to help them and claim the issue is too complicated.

    My first few years in Memphis, I taught Bible class at an inner-city church. That’s code for poor, black, and in the proverbial ghetto. I began by going to my “home church” for the early worship service, then I would head downtown to teach class. As if I subconsciously thought their worship didn’t “count.” I eventually realized how ridiculous I was, and stopped the double-church business.

    Those were the poorest people I’ve ever known on a personal level, and yet they were the most compassionate. Maybe it’s because they understood poverty. They could barely feed their own families, yet they were always taking in more children. So, yes, we definitely have something to learn from them.

  5. urbino Says:

    I’m not sure I have much to add here, except: yes. To all of that.

    My experience has been that churches (with some very notable exceptions) are much more interested in finding reasons not to help poor people — in either of the ways Claiborne discusses — than they are in just doing what Jesus said to do.

    If charity is under discussion, there’s always some version of “they’ll just squander it” or “they probably do something we don’t approve of” hanging in the air like smog, choking the life out of charity. My thinking always was: even assuming that’s true and somehow relevant (an assumption I don’t make), that’s not my business; Jesus said take care of the poor, so if I’m supposedly following Jesus, that’s what I’m supposed to do; if the poor person is supposed to do or not do certain things with that help, that’s theirs to answer for.

    If the more radical approach Claiborne discusses — making common cause with the poor — is under discussion in a church, then they . . .

    Honestly? I can’t finish that sentence, because I’ve never heard that discussion in a church.

  6. michaellasley Says:

    The insurmountable feeling is tough to overcome, or at least I’ve not. Eating a meal with the homeless doesn’t actually do anything to change their situation, so on one level it kind of seems like a self-gratifying exercise for the home-ful to participate in. But, I like Cary’s answer: the guy had a “moment” of revolutionary thinking. That moment isn’t really enough, obviously, but it is a start. The problem is turning those moments into a way of life.

    Those of us who are Christians have an out, though, when it comes to helping the poor. Jesus said they’d always be with us. So, you know, what’s the point in trying to solve a problem that’s always going to be here?

  7. michaellasley Says:

    JU — I think my favorite excuse for churches not helping the poor is that they have to be “good stewards” of what God gave them. Which, of course, means not helping someone who doesn’t have a solid financial plan to become un-poor.

  8. Rochelle Says:

    Titles. Definitions. Action. Reaction and more talking. Choices.

    If you want to give…then give.

    If you want to become homeless…then become homeless.

    I don’t believe I ever saw a sign that read, “feel sorry for me”.

    “I feel like a pencil in God’s hand. God writes thru us, and however imperfect instruments we may be, he writes beautifully. “In God” I find two things admirable: His goodness and His humility. His love and His humility are striking. God is truly humble; He comes down and uses instruments as weak and imperfect as we are. He deigns to work thru us (thru ALL of us).
    Is that not marvellous?” Mother Teresa

    Judgement. It tends to cloud the vision.

  9. alsturgeon Says:

    Alright, I’m ready to talk now. (Of course I have a meeting to go to in a couple of hours – sheesh!)

    Msmiranda asked for thoughts on where to begin, and I’ll throw one out for the sake of conversation. When you notice the purple-cloak lady working her magic, walk over, introduce yourself, and ask how in the world she was able to pee in a tupperware dish standing up like that. Tell her how impressed you are and ask her to show you how. Maybe give it a try (in your own tupperware dish, of course). Maybe she could give lessons. Tell her your name. Ask her name. Get to know her.

    I think the main part of the problem is that we worry about “the homeless” or “the poor” or some category like that… Instead of getting to know people who have names, who just happen to be homeless, or poor, or whatever…

    Two Claiborne quotes back-to-back (for a reason):
    #1: “I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”
    #2: (When asked by Princeton students which social justice issue was most important today) “Don’t choose issues; choose people. Come play in the fire hydrants in North Philly. Fall in love with a group of people who are marginalized and suffering, and then you won’t have to worry about which cause you need to protest. Then the issues will choose you.”

    You see, I think the “homeless” issue is overwhelming because it is overwhelming (props to Mikey, there will always be the poor). But the purple-cloak lady’s situation might not be overwhelming.

    But, of course, this will mean that we have to be willing to get out of our comfortable world and encounter people different from us. That’s where we have to begin.

    Since Ro went and quoted Momma T for us (smile), I’ll throw out one, too (citing Claiborne, of course). Claiborne is a true radical who moved into the inner city, but the funny thing is that he doesn’t understand why people worry about him or are afraid to do what he has done. He feels lots more sorry for us in the suburbs.

    He writes, “Why would I want a fancy car when I can ride a bike, or a TV when I can play outside with sidewalk chalk? Okay, sometimes I still want the hot tub on the roof, but the rest I can live without. Patting Mother Teresa on the back, someone said to her, ‘I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.’ She said with a grin, ‘Me neither.'”

    Maybe our heart tugging us toward the homeless isn’t our goodness calling. Maybe it’s something telling us that we’re missing out on something good.

  10. urbino Says:

    Harrumph, Al!

    Seems like the best possible place to start, to me. With a person, not an issue.

    No religious claptrap needed for that.

    I think my favorite excuse for churches not helping the poor is that they have to be “good stewards” of what God gave them.

    The thing I can’t get out of my mind on that one, Mikey, is the parable of the talents. The guy that, by church thinking, was the best steward — i.e., best protected what he was given, never putting it at risk — turned out to be not just the worst steward, but such a horrible failure he was thrown out on his ear.

    Seems like churches would learn something from that, eventually.

  11. alsturgeon Says:

    Don’t be silly. 🙂

    Thanks for the kind word (though “harumph” doesn’t have such a kind consistency to it, but still). This topic has led me to a couple of Claiborne sections that might make for some future hippo posts.

    But I hope this discussion isn’t over just yet.

  12. Joe Chesser Says:

    Well, the way I see it, churches (and I’m including myself) are often too disgusted with the idea of getting their hands dirty and finding themelves in uncomfortable situations that they simply throw money at the problem or justify doing nothing because they’re afraid their charity will be abused and not properly appreciated. I for one am glad that I would never take the undeserved gifts of God and flush them down the toilet w/o so much as a thank you. Jesus attitude towards the outcast and less fortunate was not simply to give them stuff (he did his share of that), but heal them of the sickness that haunted their lives…sin. The only way he could accomplish that was to invest personal time in their lives. What the less fortunate need from us (besides a hot meal from time to time) is our attention and touch, and that requires us to get past the “Eewwww” and just do what’s right.

  13. Joe Chesser Says:

    Oh, and I’m on the board of the National Conference on Youth Ministries and we’ve asked Shane to come speak at our conference in January (2-5) in Atlanta. If you’re in the area, come by and hear him kick our butts!


  14. alsturgeon Says:

    Okay, here’s a problem I have with Jesus. Here’s what he should have done instead of the terribly inefficient way he went about things:

    1. Find a section of land with lots of dirt
    2. Set up an assembly line of the apostles, drifters, etc.
    3. Go up and down the line spitting into the dirt
    4. Instruct the assembly line folks to make the spit/dirt into little mudballs
    5. Send out the able-bodied followers looking for blind people (who, once spotted, aren’t too hard to catch)
    6. Rub the aforementioned mudballs on to the eyes of the blind.
    7. Rinse and repeat

    You see, this way you heal a lot more blind people than the way Jesus went about doing it, what with his just running into real people, talking to them as individuals, etc.

    Inefficient, inefficient, inefficient.

    But his way was personal. I’ll give him that.

  15. urbino Says:

    Jesus attitude towards the outcast and less fortunate was not simply to give them stuff (he did his share of that), but heal them of the sickness that haunted their lives…sin.

    Was it? Sometimes he threw in a religious message — “go thou and sin no more” — but often times he simply fixed their very this-worldly problems and told them not to tell anybody about him (which is about as bad an “outreach” strategy as one can imagine). Churches somehow manage to turn that around so the only thing that matters is telling people about him.

    The good Samaritan didn’t uncork a homily at the roadside on the superiority of Mount Gerizim to the Jerusalem temple, or leave a Gideon Torah in the injured man’s room at the inn. He “just” saw to it that the man had shelter, food, and healthcare until he was well enough to travel. That’s what made the good Samaritan good in Jesus’ telling of the story.

    I’m not saying Jesus wasn’t concerned with sin. Clearly, he was. I’m just saying he didn’t package every good deed with a sermon. Each has its place, and each is valuable (important, required) in itself.

    Jesus’ concern for the sin sickness that haunted people’s lives seems to come up much more often when he’s interacting with well-to-do insiders than when he’s with the less fortunate outcasts.

  16. urbino Says:

    Jesus said they’d always be with us. So, you know, what’s the point in trying to solve a problem that’s always going to be here?

    ‘zackly. Funny the churchgoers don’t ever pick up on the fact that he said the same thing about sinners.

    Wait. Is “funny” the word I was looking for there?

  17. alsturgeon Says:

    Probably not.

    Maybe weird. Strange. Unfortunate. Sad. Ridiculous. Unfathomable. Troubling.

    Or something like that.

  18. urbino Says:

    “Perverse,” maybe.

  19. odgie Says:

    Believers (myself included) are socialized to think that we are only to be charitable with our money. Jesus’ model demonstrates that we are to be charitable with our time and all other resources as well. We need to pray that God will remove our social conditioning.

  20. Ric Says:

    Okay, I’ll say it. I have a problem with SOME homeless. Some. I live in Hawaii. As most would consider this paradise it will be hard to understand my feelings. I will leave the church out of this and focus more on the homeless. And I realize I cannot catagorize ALL of them.

    Hawaii IS an expensive place to live, I will never argue that fact. There is a terible homelss problem here in paradise. There are also MANY charitable organizations who CAN afford to help and DO. So where’s the problem? All over this Island there are “shelters” to assist the homeless; Transitional shelters that provide a solid roof, food, clothing, safety, substance abuse counseling, running water (hot and cold), job searching, education, job placement and assistance (financially) in locating) permanent low income housing. The utopia of homelessness? No!

    There was just an article in the local Honolulu advertiser (and like Al, I am too tired to search and link it now) that stated most homeless will not make use of these “transitional facilities” because there are too many rules. Rules like; no drugs, no alcohol, quiet hours and oh yeah….during the day, you need to utilize the several services above to remain in the shelter to further receive the assistance provided. There is a saying out here “AINOKEA” (tranlsated means I don’t care). The homeless will do what they like, when they like and are very much in your face about it. How? They have all moved to the beach! The beautiful beaches you see at the travel agency are all in Waikiki. Many of the other beaches are literlally consumed by homeless tents that typically take up more square footage than the average home. They feel it’s their right. I disagree. I can’t go to xyz beach and even use the public restroom (which my tax dollars pay for) because I’m afraid to get robbed, knifed, or otherwise assaulted.

    I am a believer (again thank you Al for baptizing me) and I feel for the less fortunate. I also believe there is a HUGE difference between homelessness and abuse of a system disigned to help those less fortunate. The local parks are a mess, the “local” beaches are filthy, and this is a place where there is PLENTY of money and people willing to help.

    We can’t throw our hands up and say “AINOKEA”, but when offered this kind of assitance with not many takers I can only feel discouraged.

  21. alsturgeon Says:

    Good thoughts, Ric. I heard a minister named Harold Shank speak once on the prophet Amos (who dealt lots with social justice in the OT), and Mr. Shank kept using the phrase, the “deserving poor.” By that, he meant those who “deserve” (and need) to be helped.

    It may sound a bit harsh, but I think its a necessary distinction.

    There are plenty of rich folks who “deserve” to be homeless, too, so painting with broad brushstrokes isn’t wise in our discussion, and I think your comment serves as a necessary reminder.

    Which is why I’ve become a MUCH bigger fan of Jesus’s personal approach.

  22. Terry A. Says:

    When we were at Yankee Stadium last year, my wife and I saw a guy standing outside an exit, holding a sign that said “Why lie? I need a beer.”

    The wife wouldn’t let me give him any money. 🙂

  23. Larry James Says:

    I’ll begin by saying I haven’t read this entire conversation. Then, I’ll quickly add that all our conversations tend to be typically about us and our individual responses to the homeless. We talk about panhandling, bladder and bowel habits and needs in public places, loittering, etc. All the things that homeless people “do.” We seldom talk about collective responses–the sorts of things that are essential to really making a difference. People beg, pee, sleep and hang out becasue they don’t have places where they can reside. The solution will never be found among us do good types who can’t get over what Jesus said. . .except as we join in a public movement to develop homes for the poor. . .homes, not hand outs!

  24. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Larry.

    To quote Claiborne yet again, your comment reminded me of his saying…

    “We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day, but teach them to fish and they’ll eat for the rest of their life.’ But our friend John Perkins challenges us to go farther. He says, ‘The problem is that nobody is asking who owns the pond.’ As we consider economics, some of us will give people fish. Others will teach people to fish. But still others must be looking at who owns the pond and who polluted it, for these are essential questions for our survival. We must storm the fence that has been built around the pond and make sure everyone can get to it, for there are enough fish for all of us.”

  25. urbino Says:

    You do make a good point, Ric. There’s variety of people who are homeless, just as, to pick up on Al’s point, there’s a variety of people who aren’t. Poverty and/or homelessness isn’t, as in some romantic notions, inherently ennobling. By and large, it’s a soul-crushing grind.

    Among the homeless there are some who choose to be homeless. They prefer it as a lifestyle. It makes sense that those folks would tend to accumulate in places like Hawaii, San Diego, etc., since the climate is more homelessness-friendly. So you probably do see more of those folks where you live than the rest of us do. Furthermore, among those who choose to be homeless, there are some — maybe a large number — who are also, well, assholes.

    I don’t think anybody’s denying that. (Correct me if I’m wrong, everybody.) There are some people who don’t want help, and there are some people you just can’t help because of their nature.

    OTOH, a substantial portion of America’s homeless population is homeless because they have mental illnesses and had nowhere to go when state mental care facilities started closing.

    I’m not sure how one tells whether a given . . . let’s say “difficult” homeless person is mentally ill and in need of care, or just an asshole, without getting to know that person pretty darn well. Even then it’d be easy to get wrong.

    It just seems to me the whole issue should be approached as: let’s help people, and let the ones who won’t be helped sort of naturally find their way out our door. Rather than: let’s not help anybody unless and until they can prove they’re worth the effort.

  26. urbino Says:

    I also agree with Larry and with Claiborne’s quote that, as important as the personal approach is, it isn’t sufficient. There are structural problems that need structural solutions.

  27. Seth Simmons Says:

    There is honestly nothing that I could say that hasn’t already been said, but I have dedicated my life to move in the direction of being completely out of “official ministry” and into working the streets in the future weather near future or long way off. I’ve been changed by personally getting involved while living in iraq and falling in love with people who live worse then our homeless in america. I began a deep search into homelessness in america for the past 3 years. One of the books that was a real motivator to me was a book called “Under the Overpass” about 2 college students who dropped out of school and gave up their cell phones, credit cards, clothes, and showers, to go live in the streets as homeless guys and minister to people while do this. It was a wonderful read. I have also tapped into the Homeless Church( in San Fran, CA. I love college ministry, but I know that I am completely comfortable walking the streets that are filled with homeless and are extremely dangerous areas. The Lord has prepared my life through war for such a ministry as this. I hope to someday be logging on here to tell you an amazing testimony of men and women who are getting their lives in order by the hand of Jesus Christ.

  28. Larry James Says:

    We need to be careful that we don’t confuse the idea that “the homeless prefer to be homeless” with the fact that they prefer being homeless to what we offer them as an alternative. When’s the last time you spent a night in a shelter? I’d pick the creek bank over an unending men’s retreat where I was told when to go to bed, when to get up, what to eat and what to endure before I could eat (i. e. another banal sermon!) Most of us just don’t get it because we haven’t been there and we haven’t really had an authentic relationship with a homeless person. I have met a number of homeless persons who chose to stay on the streets over what I was suggesting. I’ve never had one turn down a permanent place to live where they could maintain some semblance of control over their days and nights.

  29. johndobbs Says:

    Great discussion. I spent some time yesterday with a young man I have known for ten years or so. I don’t think he really thinks of himself as homeless, but he is. He has been a thug for most of the years I’ve known him. Given chance after chance of getting himself together, he has blown them all. He won’t keep a job. Neither of his parents will allow him to live with them. He says he has abandoned drugs, so he can’t live with his cousin who is big into that habit. He was living with a girlfriend – who was still living at home. He got into it with the girlfriends’ mother, so she kicked him out. He cut his wrists … ended up at the hospital where they sewed up his cuts and sent the vagrant back out into the street. He slept outside for two nights and then showed up at our church. So we let him stay a few days. I asked him to get up this morning and go try to find a job. Unless I TAKE him, he will not do it. I checked later in the morning and he was laying in bed asleep. This boy is about 22 years old. He is a street person, but he doesn’t know it. I keep talking to him about ‘next steps’. He stares blankly at me. I talk about a job and he says he may have one lined up … waiting for them to call. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t see the disconnect here. He’s asleep in our bunkhouse (built for katrina volunteers) and I have no idea how to help him.

    Helping the homeless is complex. I think Larry is right, but I also think that knowing the resources, joining in with them … is also complex.

    An ongoing conversation with a homeless man:

  30. alsturgeon Says:

    Urbino: Just an amen.

    Seth: Very encouraging to hear of someone hearing a call and accepting it. Stay in touch.

    Larry: I think my first time to consider the essence of what you’re saying was back in the “welfare mom bashing” in the Newt/Rush ’90s – considering that if I had to choose between staying home with my kids or working and bringing home less, I know what I’d choose. I think what you’re saying is similar to that, but not popularly understood. May we all spread the word that what you have to say is true.

    John: Thanks for bringing a face to the table. Complex is so true, too.

  31. johndobbs Says: has an interesting photo with a caption…no commentary … of interest to this thread.

  32. alsturgeon Says:

    That is interesting! Thanks, John!

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